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#17 — Finding Common Ground: Negotiating and Resolving Conflicts (Part I)

Finding common ground with other people does not mean finding absolute agreement. Common ground is shareable ground whose boundaries are marked by a range of actions that all can live with. You and your neighbor may not vote for the same political candidate, for example, but your shared belief in elections, free speech, and the democratic process is common ground.

Negotiating is a rational process for resolving differences and for finding common ground. It’s not just what diplomats and labor and management leaders do---all of us do it all the time. We negotiate with our spouses over what color to paint the kitchen or where to go on vacation. We negotiate with the phone company over a bill we don’t agree with. We negotiate with our employers to get a raise. We negotiate with our teenagers over curfews and car keys.

Active citizens negotiate within their own groups over strategies and priorities; with government officials over policies and funding; and with other citizens, who may not understand or agree with what they want to do.

When negotiations are done well, they can bring people together instead of pushing them apart. They can lead to solutions that are smarter and fairer than either side may have originally proposed. They can even be fun.

But not always. When negotiations go badly (or are never attempted), the result is conflict; people become defensive, emotional, and, in the extreme case, violent in words and/or actions.

The next few Coach’s Corners include both general principles and tactical advice for negotiating good solutions, for keeping negotiations from becoming conflicts, and for resolving conflicts when they dooccur. It deals with negotiation and conflict together because the two can quickly shift back and forth into each other, as reason and emotion jockey for control.

The suggestions here apply not just to negotiations and conflicts you may encounter as an active citizen, but also to those in any area of your life---at work or in your home, for example. People are people, and the interpersonal dynamics of dealing with differences are pretty much the same, regardless of the scale and complexity of the situation. If negotiating house rules with your teenager seems as hard as brokering peace in the Middle East, you may be right!

The processes described here are flexible. You may find some of the steps here unnecessary in the situation you’re in, or you might need to apply them in some creative new combination of your own.

The tips here are addressed to you as an individual, but if you’re part of a team, it’s important that your whole team agree to try them, too. It’s hard to create trust with an opponent if others on your team think the only way to deal with differences is to fight until they “win.” Use what’s in this chapter to bring members of your team along. Let them see the power of this approach through your own example.

The strategy described below and I subsequent posts may be very different from other models you have used or read about. It doesn’t depend on outwitting or overpowering an opponent, nor does it focus on bargaining over interests and positions. It works by creating the trust needed to find and build on common ground. Its goal is to find solutions that are stable because they bring people together instead of pushing them further apart.

I’ve used and refined this strategy over 30 years of negotiating and resolving conflicts, including face-offs at the United Nations and environmental battles in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve taught these principles for the last 5 years in hundreds of workshops and consultations. Of course, they don’t always work. But a strategy based on building trust has dramatically raised the odds for my success, and I’m convinced that it will do the same for you.

Finally, negotiating is but one tool in a much larger tool kit for creating change. That kit, depending on the circumstances, might also include public testimony, bureaucratic maneuvering, mass-media initiatives, community forums, lobbying, electoral politics, litigation, and public actions such as boycotts and demonstrations. Many or even all of these elements can fit together as part of an overall plan for change.

I’ve broken what I know into two major sections. The first discusses general principles for negotiating and resolving conflicts; the second offers a 10-step strategy for actually doing it.

General Principles for Negotiating and Resolving Conflicts

Some of these elements you already know; others may be new and challenging. All of them represent years of experience, on my part and others’, of what works and what does not.

1. Winning at the Expense of Others Is a Poor Solution

Seeking unilateral victories often sacrifices long-term benefit for short-term “gain.” People put on the defensive will usually fight back, which closes their minds to anything but “winning” (or surviving). Manipulating or overpowering people may get you to your immediate objective, but it’s also certain to seed festering fears and resentments that will come back to hurt you or your cause; the enemies you make will wait until your back is turned, or until you’ve moved on, to counterattack.

What’s your experience?Have you ever been involved in a conflict that seemed to go on forever, with every minor “victory” by one side ratcheting up the conflict one more notch? If you have, what happened? How did it end? Didit end?

2. Look below the Waterline

Many negotiations and nearly all conflicts are like icebergs. Remember the discussion from Coach’s Corner #3 about hidden agendas: the most dangerous part of an iceberg is not the part you can see, it’s the part you can’t. The top of the iceberg is the part of a negotiation or conflict that people talk about openly. But there’s plenty below the waterline, too.

What’s your experience?Have you ever tried to settle a problem and sensed that something other than the problem itself was going on---something important that nobody was talking about and that was pushing a solution further and further out of sight?

It could be a hidden agenda. A largely white community may try to block a low-income housing project by saying it will lower property values, but the real issue might be racism; they think all the new residents will be people of color, and they don’t want those people in their neighborhood. Racism is one of the below-the-waterline issues that few people are willing to talk about.

Strong religious or political beliefs may be in full view, but often they are embedded in the iceberg, waiting for something to push them to the surface. Even deeper in the iceberg may be prejudices, fears, insecurities, or (especially) anger from past injuries and insults. Even if these buried elements have nothing directly to do with the problem at hand, they can significantly influence how people respond and how they behave. Habitual bullies, for example, may suffer from an underlying lack of self-confidence that’s been feeding on them since they were kids.

Don’t think all the buried issues are in somebody else’siceberg. Unless you’re a saint, you’ve got some, too, and it’s important to acknowledge what’s below your own waterline. You may not be able to effect an instant personal redo, but just being aware of what’s there will help you keep it from fouling up the encounter. If you know you’re wrestling with authority issues left over from your childhood, for example, think twice before you flail away at the mayor.

Sometimes you may be able to build enough trust with the other person to actually talk about buried issues, including your own. But no one’s asking you to be a psychotherapist, and there’s a limit to how deeply you can dig into somebody else’s iceberg, let alone change what you may find there. Still, it’s just common sense to recognize how buried issues and the emotions around them can make people defensive, unreasonable, and combative---and how those behaviors can undermine negotiations and make conflicts intractable.

Key point: The more aware you are that buried issues are affecting a negotiation or conflict, the better able you’ll be to take them into account. This can create breakthroughs---or at least help you avoid pitfalls.

For example, realizing that racist attitudes are behind a community’s opposition to low-income housing won’t end the racism, but it may help the advocates of that housing shape strategies that address those attitudes and even help soften them; the advocates could show community leaders successful low-income housing developments in other neighborhoods and urge them to talk with the residents. The goal would be to lessen stereotypes and provide examples showing that multiethnic neighborhoods can have a positive, respectful civic life.

Training yourself to look below the waterline will also help you be more sensitive and less judgmental with people in general. Don’t excuse bad behavior---just acknowledge where it might be coming from and adjust your responses. If you suspect that Dan’s bad temper is tied to his recent divorce, for example, then don’t flaunt your own wedded bliss.

None of this is easy. After all, hidden agendas and other buried issues can be sensitive and even inflammatory---that’s why they’re hidden. Do this searching because at a minimum it will help you deal more constructively with emotions and attitudes around the table. And in the best instance, it can help you find solutions that are more likely to last because they take into account allof the elements in play. Ignoring major hidden elements---such as racism in a community---increases the danger that any “solution” you find will be at best a short-term fix, a compromise that breaks down with the first real challenge. The original problem will reappear, often in a different form.

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All content © 2015 John A. Graham. All rights reserved.